Many young filmmakers and movie enthusiasts wonder what software platforms are used by the big players in Hollywood. There seems to be a lot of misinformation about this floating around the internet, so I decide to write a post about what programs are actually industry standard.
One of the first programs any new filmmaker learns is an editing program of some sort. These days most young people cut their teeth on Apple iMovie or Windows Movie Maker. These are great programs for beginners but they aren’t typically used on major motion pictures.
From there, many filmmakers learn Adobe Premiere or Apple Final Cut Pro.
Final Cut Pro has taken some heat recently after the release of version X, and most of the pros that used it have stopped. Adobe Premiere is still used in many profession settings, including a major feature film or two. Most notably the recent blockbuster Gone Girl.
It is worth keeping in mind, however, that the Adobe Premiere used by David Fincher and Kirk Baxter to cut Gone Girl is not the same editing program that you would get if you as a consumer went and bought Adobe Premiere today.
The fact that Gone Girl was made primarily with Adobe software was a major advertising point for Adobe, and from what I’ve heard from friend in the industry, Adobe provided a massive amount of customization and support to the post production team.
While Adobe is a major player in the software field, the vast majority of major Hollywood studio films are edited on Avid Media Composer. Avid was the software of choice for The Hobbit, Avatar, Avengers and many, many others.
There’s a saying in the film industry that it’s easier to get a project started with Premiere or Final Cut. Avid takes longer to get set up, but once you’re going, it’s theoretically much faster than working with the other two platforms. Avid, unlike the other two, is specifically designed for major feature films. It’s expensive, and far less user friendly that the other major platforms, but it’s designed to be fast, crash less, even with huge files, and to facilitate collaboration. In other words, an editor in London and and editor in Los Angeles can easily bounce files back and forth and both work on the same movie.
This is because the video files themselves are not part of the project file. Instead the project file simply references the video files. The benefit of this is the project files are a much smaller size, the downside is you have to be very careful organizing your files are things stop working.
Though Premiere and Final Cut may seem complicated compared to iMovie or Windows Movie Maker, they are designed with the computer generation in mind, and are therefore easier to learn for most people. Avid Media Composer, in contrast, was the first major digital editing program, and was designed with traditional film editors in mind.
To summarize, it’s hard and expensive and I wouldn’t recommend it as anyone’s first editing program, but for big budget feature films with tons of money and tight deadlines, Avid Media Composer is indispensable.
It’s worth noting that many companies specializing in shorter form content, such as videos for online streaming, use Premiere rather than Avid because they feel the faster set up time and ease of use better suits their pipeline.
The most employable editor is one who’s comfortable with all the major editing platforms.
The short answer for sound software is that, in the US, Pro Tools is industry standard. Pro Tools is owned by Avid, the same company that sells Avid Media Composer. This means the two play well together.
If you visit a Hollywood mixing stage, they will obviously have more than one software that they use, but the others are generally for specific tasks. Pro Tools is the catch all, work horse program of choice.
In other countries, however, this is not necessarily true.
Pro Tools also has discounted student subscriptions available. But if it’s still outside your budget, consider GarageBand or Audacity. GarageBand comes free on all Macs and has lots of great features to get you started with professional level sound design. Audacity is open source and is available for both Mac and Windows.
VFX Software is a little less clear cut. There is not one single software package that is used for every task on every movie. Rather there is variation from studio to studio and from task to task.
To start out with, the question of CGI/3D animation. This is the process of creating digital “puppets” so to speak for use in film or television. These days CGI is used in some way or another in nearly every Hollywood blockbuster.
If you’re not familiar with how CGI works, here’s a vastly over simplified summary of the different steps:
- Modeling and texturing
- A digital character, prop, environment, etc is created and then assigned a material/texture.
- Artists give the model movement.
- Lighting and rendering
- The model is converted into a final 2D video or still image.
For rendering, PIXAR Renderman is industry standard. It’s been used on countless movies including Avengers, Jurassic World, 300, Godzilla, Interstellar, Transformers, The Hunger Games, Pacific Rim, World War Z, Life of Pi, Harry Potter, Planet of the Apes, The Tree of Life, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, every Pixar movie and pretty much every other major VFX movie to come out since the 90s.
As far as modeling and animating, there’s a wider variety of software used. Certainly Autodesk is a major player. Their Maya and 3DS Max software platforms are very common workhorse programs in the industry. Both can model, animate and render.
Other programs are designed to fulfill specific tasks. For example, a program called ZBrush is specifically designed for creature modeling. It’s more like working with clay than other modeling programs, which is better suited to organic forms. Mudbox is Autodesk’s comparable.
On a side note, I’ve read several other posts that refer to the open source 3D program Blender as industry standard. I’m a huge Blender fan. It was the first 3D program I learned, back in the early days when almost no one had heard of it. And I still recommend it to many young artists. But unfortunately it is not yet commonly used in Hollywood.
It’s been used on a couple of big, high budget projects, including perhaps most notably Spiderman 2 back in 2004. But even in that case, Blender was used primarily for pre-viz work (i.e. glorified storyboarding).
Now with that said, Blender really is an excellent program. It’s a general 3D program, comparable to Maya or 3DS Max in that it can be used to model, animate and render almost anything. And if you know what you’re doing, you can absolutely get Hollywood level images.
The reason it hasn’t become commonplace within the industry is no doubt in part snobbishness towards the open source movement, but it’s also practical. Maya is what they know, Maya is what the pipeline is set up for, and frankly, Maya does still have a few more features. And the cost of Maya, while it may seem like a lot, is still one of the lesser expenses of running a multi-million dollar viz effects house.
Once you’re done with the CGI, one of the next step is compositing. Compositing is the process of combining two or more elements together into one image. For example, you may have an actor in front of a green screen, an alien and a CGI spaceship interior to combine into one image for the final film. Compositing can be labor intensive and dull at times, but it’s an important part of every VFX pipeline.
Most young filmmakers and VFX artists get their first taste of serious compositing with Adobe After Effects. After Effects is a powerful, versatile program that can be used for a wide variety of purposes.
Though After Effects is a very popular program, there is another compositing software that is equally, if not more popular among top end, professional VFX houses, and that is Nuke. Originally developed for in house use at effects company Digital Domain, Nuke has since been used on movies ranging from Interstellar and James Bond to Paddington Bear. It’s considered to be somewhat more powerful than After Effects, but is also significantly harder to learn and more expensive.
For most non-$100 million projects, After Effects would work beautifully.
Now, there is another reason why you should take this whole article with a grain of salt, and it applies in particular to the VFX section.
Two word: proprietary software.
Most major companies, and some in particular (Lucas Films, for example) develop a lot of the software they use to make films in house, and they are the only ones that have access to it. In truth, the question of “what software does Pixar use to animate” is to difficult to answer in part because a lot of the software they use is completely secret to the public. We really don’t know much about it.
The field of software for film is constantly changing, and those working in post production must remain vigilant to keep up to date with the latest and greatest in filmmaking technology. While this article is by no means complete, I hope it will be helpful to at least a few people.
If anyone reading this has additions or corrections, please feel free to comment!